Russia using Soviet tactics to silence Stalin critic, say friends of jailed historian

A historian of Stalinist Russia facing charges of child pornography will undergo psychological tests this week. Critics say the case lays bare the hypocrisy of the Kremlin’s attempts to rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy and burnish an ugly historical narrative for political gain.

Yuri Dmitriev, 61, was arrested in December 2016 and later charged with possession of indecent images of a child and possession of parts of a firearm. His lawyer said on January 9 that authorities are forcing him to undergo psychological tests this week, in what he sees as a campaign to keep the historian quiet.

“Perhaps if they can’t convict him [of child pornography] they need to declare him insane,” attorney Viktor Anufriev told Reuters. Anufriev said such methods were “a purely Soviet procedure.”

Yuri Dmitriev at a ceremony for the memorialization of victims in the burial he uncovered By Mediafond (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Yuri Dmitriev at a ceremony for victims of Soviet repression. By Mediafond (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Dmitriev has previously been declared mentally fit by a court-mandated test. Expert witnesses have found the pictures in question of his foster daughter contain no pornographic material, according to Reuters.

According to a petition demanding Dmitriev’s release launched by Russia’s Memorial society, the images of his foster daughter were taken to chart aspects of her health. Dmitriev did own parts of a gun, it says, but these were artifacts he’d found while excavating burial sites. The petition’s signatories include British historian Anthony Beevor, American journalist Anne Applebaum and other high-profile Western Russophiles and Kremlin critics.

Memorial said Dmitriev was “renounced” anonymously and that expert witnesses who acted for the prosecution have previously provided biased and politically motivated evidence.

Writing in culture website Eurozine, Russian writer Sergei Lebedev called the charges against Dmitriev “trumped up” and said the case showed “the clear hand of the KGB.”

Combative career

Dmitriev is best known for discovering the Sandarmokh burial ground — an unmarked woodland area where the NKVD (Soviet secret police) hid victims of state repression. Journalist and author David Satter interviewed Dmitriev for his book It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway, a study of how Russia has attempted to bury Soviet crimes.

Satter told WikiTribune that Dmitriev is a long-term human rights activist and historian with a background of conflict with the regional government in the Republic of Karelia. In particular, he clashed with local authorities over the creation of a monument to a former secret police chief in the region’s capital of Petrozavodsk.

Satter said he has not seen the evidence against Dmitriev, but considers him a normal man with “a great deal of common sense in an area where common sense is in short supply.”

“It’s common practice in Russia, if you think you have something on someone you don’t like, to use it against them,” said Satter.

Soviet burial grounds, controversial history

Dmitriev has been a regional chairman of the Memorial society, which was founded during Perestroika to research Stalin-era terror. Its research became sidelined when human rights researchers shifted focus to contemporary problems, said Satter.

“For many years it was assumed that the locations of these (Soviet) burial grounds would never be known,” said Satter. “At the time [Dmitriev] was doing his research, the ‘re-Stalinization’ of Russia had not gone as far as it has now.”

Vladimir Putin’s government has been criticized for attempting to rehabilitate Stalin’s image by downplaying mass human rights violations and emphasizing Stalin’s role in leading Russia to victory in the Second World War, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War.

Critics say Putin is burnishing Russian history and Stalin’s image to generate national pride in a way that feeds into support for his own brand of conservative-strongman leadership.

In a series of interviews with American director Oliver Stone for Showtime in 2017, Putin said the “excessive demonization of Stalin is one of the ways Russia’s enemies attack it.”

Though demonised in the West, Putin is seen favourably by many Russians and was voted the second "most outstanding" figure in world history in a recent poll, after Josef Stalin By Adriao (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Josef Stalin served as Premier of the Soviet Union from 1941-53. According to one estimate, he was responsible for the deaths of between 20 and 25 million people. By Adriao (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Last year, Russia’s Levada Center said Stalin topped a poll of figures that Russians see as the “most outstanding” in history. Putin placed second.

In October 2017, Putin inaugurated a Moscow monument to victims of Stalinist purges. “Soviet-era dissidents accused him of cynicism at a time when they say authorities are riding roughshod over civil freedoms,” reported Reuters.

Known as “The Wall of Grief,” the monument depicts faceless victims sent to prison camps or executed after being accused of being “enemies of the people.”

“An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,” Putin said at the opening ceremony (Reuters).

Critics may well wonder about the sincerity of that statement.

On January 10, reacting to news that the head of the local Chechen branch office of Memorial had been arrested, the U.S. Department of State called on authorities “to immediately release Mr. (Oyub) Titiev and allow independent civil society to operate free from harassment and intimidation.”

Read more: A parable for modern Russia: the less you know, the better you sleep

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